By Beena Sarwar
12 March, 2004
The young woman behind the cell phone shop counter in downtown Bombay
appears taken aback on learning where Im from, then glances about
to see who else is listening. Apparently Im the first Pakistani
she has ever met. And I look just like anyone from her own country.
Her name tag pronounces
that she is Naseem, and she tells me that actually, her mother is from
Quetta. I wish I could see it! she says. I wonder
what the currency looks like
I fumble in my bag, find an
almost-new ten rupee note for her - she holds it up, studies it, and
excitedly shows it to her colleagues, who gather around interestedly.
As she starts to give it back, I shake my head, You can keep it.
Seeing her hesitation, I add, Its a present from Pakistan,
you can show it to your mother.
No, how can
I? I have nothing to give you
.wait! She turns and goes to
a locker, and offers me an Indian note in exchange. Ive
kept this for a long time, the serial number has a special meaning for
me. Please, you take it, she says. Its a crisp ten-rupee
Indian note. The serial number starts with 786, the Islamic
holy numbers because they stand for Bismillah, I explain
to my friend, fellow journalist Kalpana Sharma who is looking on bemusedly.
we complete the cell phone transaction, and I have a local cell number
for just over four hundred (Indian) rupees, including tax, SIM card
and Rs 150 worth of talk time.
Across town, young
Arif Pervez and another Pakistani friend are going through a similar
experience, but without an Indian host to provide the photo-ID and local
address. When they saw my Pakistani passport they didnt
know quite what to do. They kept saying, No problem, well
just get it for you sir, but there were a lot of phone consultations
and surreptitious looks -- and reassuring smiles -- before we got it.
The fact that he got it, says a lot for the improving relations between
the two countries.
Why are the visiting
Pakistanis so keen to have local cell phones? For one thing, its
useful at an event like the World Social Forum where some 100,000 other
human beings are milling about. For another, many people like to be
connected, but leaving aside the high roaming charges of our parent
companies, India and Pakistan are probably the only two neighbouring
countries in the world where you cross the border and the roaming stops.
Indian and Pakistani cell phones cant even talk to or text-message
each other from their respective countries
If this is not on the
agenda in the forthcoming talks, it should be.
Back to Naseem and
Another journalist friend from Delhi, Bharat Bhushan,
has an interesting story from his last visit to Karachi, when a taxi
driver he sat with talked nostalgically about the ferry that used to
ply Karachi-Bombay route. It cost Rs 16, and no one asked if you
had Indian or Pakistani rupees, he says. Hard to believe today,
when we cant even change Pakistani currency into Indian or vice
versa we have to use US dollars, British pounds or Euros.
shock followed by a warm response is typical of what Pakistanis visiting
India encounter today. Many such responses come from the migrants who
had have come to live here looking for work just like Karachi.
Others are visiting for the World Social Forum, where Indian participants
often asked the Pakistani delegates for their contact numbers and even
at WSF is packed for Habib Tanvirs Pongal Pandit which
pokes unabashed fun at pomposity and religious self-righteousness
the ageing but still spirited Tanvir has been physically attacked for
this play, even though, as he stresses it is not his but
a 1935 play he has revived with local, unlettered actors. Next to me,
chuckling loudly at the play, is Ganesh Prasad from a village in Madhya
Pradesh. Between scenes, he writes his address down for me and says,
Please, some time, write to me from Pakistan. Others seated
nearby join in. Pakistan? Where from in Pakistan? The man
next to Ganesh has an uncle living in Korangi, Karachi.
A young factory
worker from UP is perhaps typical of the hundreds of ordinary people
out for a recreational stroll at Azad Maidan (from where Gandhi launched
the resistance) only to find the WSF closing plenary under way: Maam,
where are you from, Pakistan? Can I have your sign please?
Now strangers, we
were once one, divided by an open border soon separation; permits were
gradually introduced and then finally the passport system and visa restrictions
that now keep us so much apart that that coming across an Indian or
Pakistani in the other country is almost a shock. But so great is the
yearning and the desire to meet perhaps now more so, as a realization
seeps into both national consciousness that peace is the only way forward
for us - that when you do come into contact with each other, there is
more often than not, this spontaneous warmth and welcoming, and of course
At least, that is
what one found in Bombay or Mumbai, as the Shiv Sena government
re-named it in 1996. Locals use the names interchangeably, although
many persist with the old Bombay as an assertion of its
multi-cultural, rather than Marathi, identity. It reminds one so much
of Karachi it has the same commercial pull, the same sea laps
its shores. Mumbai is the finance capital of the nation, the industrial
hub of everything from textiles to petrochemicals, and its responsible
for half the countrys foreign trade. But while it has aspirations
to become another Singapore, its also a magnet to the rural poor.
Its these new migrants who are continually re-shaping the city
in their own image, making sure Mumbai keeps one foot in its hinterland
and the other in the global market,
says The Lonely
Plant Guide to India they might have been talking about Karachi
just like Bombay was 20, maybe 30 years ago, comments the filmmaker
Anand Patwardhan as we taxi our way across town, from the incredibly
crowded Dadar area where he lives to meet friends for dinner at a more
uptown area. If thats true, Karachis city government would
do well to study Bombays problems and preempt some of them. A
lot of positive steps have been taken in the older areas of the city,
where historic old buildings have been cleaned up, entire localities
preserved, and roads fixed. The more secular minded Bombayites or Mumbaiyas,
grumble at how roads and buildings have been renamed after Chatrapati
Shivaji, the Marathi king, but most people still use the old names.
Shashi is Marathi, but he doesnt like the Shiv Sena or any of
the other Hindutva types. They just create trouble, he grumbles
as we navigate the coastal road past the famous Haji Ali mosque at the
end of a long causeway that places the mosque in the middle of the Arabian
Sea. The same sea that laps the shores of Pakistan
Behind us, huge
hoardings of Bal Thakeray are being put up to celebrate the Shiv Sena
leaders birthday. Shashi, who lives in a 700-room chawl
(tenement) in south Bombay, doesnt have much time for such politicians.
Look at how much they spend on these things, he grumbles,
adding, Hes a mahabadmash, only creates laphars. These politicians
only foment hatred.
Shashi is proud
that his own locality with its 5000 voters has never seen a communal
clash. Their dada or community head is a Nepali Gharwali,
who has held that position for the last 25 years. He never thinks
of his own religion or caste when it comes to the community. He puts
the interests of the people first. And we have all religions and castes
living there, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, everyone lives together.
Obviously, leadership matters.
Despite the sceptre
of communal riots that has haunted India particularly since the Ayodhya
mosque was razed, Bombay has on the whole remained peaceful, even through
the next round of carnage, Gujarat. Muslim names are openly displayed
at sweetmeat or garments shops, and most of the riksha or taxi drivers
one encounters seem to be Muslim. But the spirit of reconciliation and
the desire for friendship appeared strong in most of the ordinary people
shopkeepers, taxi or riksha drivers, commuters whom the
visiting Pakistanis encountered, regardless of religion or caste, with
perhaps a few exceptions.
It seems that
the city has decided that it wants no part of this communalism after
the last horrific lapse at the time of the the Ayodhya riots,
says Kalpana. Its too much of a strain on business.
We come across people,
mostly young men, lining up for the opening of a photographic exhibition
of Marathi forts by Bal Thakarays son at the famous Jehangir Art
Gallery in the picturesque downtown area.
Always a communal
angle, says a young artist friend of Kalpanas we run into,
referring to the Shiv Senas idealizing of the Marathi rulers who
resisted the Mughals. The politics of identity, ethnicity, religion,
nationality still have a pull. But more and more people seem to be realizing
that it is the politics of humanity which will prevail if humanity is
Upstairs, the Gallery
Chemould is exhibiting a thought-provoking show called Cities,
Countries and Borders -- wood-cut prints by the New York based
artist Zarina Hashmi, who has friends and relatives in India and Pakistan.
The line is
just in everyones head, says Zarina Hashmi, who will be
exhibiting in Karachi and Lahore this month. She is talking about the
print titled Dividing Line that evokes the line between
India and Pakistan. Our generation has come to peace with it a
long time ago. So if India and Pakistan are holding peace talks now,
Im glad. I just wish they had done it earlier (The Indian
Express, Jan 14, 04).
who runs Chemould, is keen on joint art exhibitions and projects between
Indian and Pakistani artists. She is already in touch with several about
Haresh Shah, a member
of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, wants Pakistani designers
to style his textiles, and work out a value-added deal for both the
Indians and the Pakistanis. We can work out a special quota for
each other, he says. We could even work out barter deals,
and pool our resources to fight our common problems, like poverty, illiteracy,
battered women, or whatever.
This is the spirit
one encountered more than any other, during that all-too brief visit
to what seems to be Karachis vibrant, charismatic, long-lost twin.